May 12, 2020
Said one college president, “If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus.” 1 2
As a result, the decision about when to reopen will likely be the toughest decision most college administrators and boards will ever face.
With that in mind, I wanted to offer some ideas that might help guide your decision making.
Many campus leaders are rightly concerned about better meeting the needs of their residential students. At the same time, many of these same campuses are deeply concerned about finances. Great care must be taken to unravel these conflicting motivations.
Few events in America have been as surrounded by misinformation as this pandemic. Not only is there much that we don’t know about the COVID-19 virus, there is increasing uncertainty about what we do know. Compounding the issue is the credibility gap between what is said by health officials and scientists and what the politicians opine.
It is our hope that the different higher ed associations will help provide direction related to reopening. We know that many, like the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, have provided resources on the CARES Act and other legislative, financial, and student assistance issues.3 What we are not seeing, however, is much about the specific issues related to reopening. Hopefully, guidance on that decision is coming soon.
In early March, the tipping point for closure was the rapid morbidity and uncertain lethality of the COVID-19 virus. Most colleges chose to err on the side of caution and moved quickly. In fact, the decision to close took place, largely, in a two-week window. There will be no similar tipping point on when to reopen. Data that might guide the decision to reopen will be less clear, more conflicting, and will accumulate over months rather than days.
Colleges typically have specific, even rigid, start and stop dates. Most students arrive in the fall, take a hiatus in December, and return in January for the spring semester. It is unlikely that the data you need to guide a decision will follow this calendar. For many colleges, fall will arrive too soon, and January too late for the decisions that must be made.
While data suggests that traditional students are less affected by the virus than older adults, the people that provide much of the campus experience are older. The average faculty member is about 50-years-old.4 We can assume that staff and administrators are in about the same age range. And then there are the vendors and the service providers that so many campuses need. Will they be available?
Even if you have clear, compelling data that it is safe to reopen your campus, many parents and students will hang back because of lingering uncertainty.
This will be especially true for international students. As a result, your reopening will be partial rather than complete. For the near term, you will likely need to continue to offer and bear the cost and complications of providing an online experience even as you are able to offer a campus experience. Of course, you will also likely need to offer two tuition and fee schedules.
While you might not have solid data about the impact of COVID-19—both with new and returning students (and their parents)—Stamats could help develop a research study to determine not only their interest in being on campus, but also what facilities and services they find most compelling as they make their decision. This would help you to focus precious resources.
I doubt it. And even if you could, would you? Or should you? Beyond the legal and ethical issues, the political and PR fall out would be significant.
Though you might receive the green light from government officials, remember that they are, in most cases, legally protected from the decisions they make.5
And while they may never admit it in front of an open mic, they are also calculating the political costs of reopening.
In other words, when some intrepid reporter asks, “Why are you reopening?” will you have a clear answer? And later, if things go wrong (and we fervently hope they won’t), and that same reporter asks, “Did you open too soon?” will you have an answer as well?
Do you have the resources—staff, equipment, PPE, clinical space—if the virus re-emerges?6
Even as you talk to your lawyers, realize that there is little case law around a pandemic.7
Begin by looking at the medical insurance you offer your staff and students. I suspect these policies will need to be expanded. Next, gain absolute clarity about the kind, amount, and limitations of both campus liability coverage and the personal liability coverage afforded your senior leadership team and board members. While government officials enjoy sovereign immunity, college officials do not.
Remember, while your legal team has your best interests at heart, your insurance carriers typically do not. No matter what they may say, it always boils down to contract language. Insist on contract language that is absolutely unambiguous. Avoid any clauses that are subject to interpretation. One final reminder: Make sure your insurance carriers have the financial resources to cover your claim even as they cover the claims of all their other clients.
While I’ve gone out of my way to avoid specific recommendations, I want to make one now. A friend of mine owns a store in one of the most successful food franchises in the U.S. While their drive-thru is open, the restaurant itself is closed. As a consequence, they, too, are wrestling with the decision about when to reopen.
When we were chatting about the similarities between his store and colleges, he used a term that I had never heard before: fast follower.
He said there is nothing to be gained by being the first restaurant to reopen. Or even the second. Or even the third. His plan was to let a couple of other franchises open so that he and his store could take advantage of any hard-won lessons. They could then reopen with both confidence and certainty.
As you think about the health and well-being of your entire campus community, perhaps being a follower is the best idea of them all.
Want to learn more? Schedule a free consultation today.
2 I cannot help but think about the irony that the institutions that teach the most vibrant would have so much in common with those institutions that serve the most fragile.
5 A successful lawsuit against state and federal officials and employees is almost impossible because of sovereign immunity.
6 One of the worst possible scenarios is a group of students who are infected but not yet ill return to their families and hometowns. Every campus has the potential to have their own index case.
7 Check out https://www.sidley.com/en/insights/newsupdates/2020/03/key-business-and-legal-issues-to-consider-in-light-of-covid-19. While this source is directed toward business, there is much insight for higher ed as well.